I’m Afraid of Blowing My Paycheck

Dear E. Jean: My new salary makes me nervous. It’s so much money, I’m scared that I’m going to end up blowing it. I’m afraid I’ll feel too comfortable spending it. How can I avoid losing my head? —Nervous Working Girl

Aw, Hell, Working: You should lose your head. A woman who doesn’t lose her head when she wins a big new salary is probably too dumb to receive it.

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I realize this is not the kind of advice any decent columnist would give an ambitious woman, but Auntie Eeee is not decent. After two or three days of blowing it, you must get serious, of course, and have yourself tied to the mast like Ulysses and sail by Bergdorf’s without going inside—but a new salary? It’s to be enjoyed, else why go to work?

Then sign up (it’s free) on Mint.com. You’ll be able to view your financial accounts via charts and graphs that will help you set a budget, track your spending, set goals, and organize an investment plan. I’m waiting for them to build a new feature where they make us all rich widows without having to marry anyone.

P.S. If you’re not down with the whole “Spend it! It’s good for you!” philosophy, just forward your salary to me at my mountain cabin, along with a certified check for $1,800. That’s my fee for splurging and enjoying your money.

This letter is from the E. Jean archive.

Why Won’t the Girl I’m Online Dating Meet Me?

Dear E. Jean: I’m a 30-year-old guy. I’m writing to you because I want honest, impartial advice on the following question: Am I an asshole?

I met a girl on a dating site, and we started to talk—and talk a lot. Over the course of the past month we probably exchanged 2,000 texts, and spoke on the phone every other day. We got along great. But she refused to meet in person, even though she’s a grad student at a university close to my office. I asked about her reluctance to meet, but she brushed it off. She said she had no “fears” and had never experienced any “horrible first dates,” so I was having difficulty understanding why we shouldn’t hang out. I therefore sent her the following message: “I need to know if you want to move this forward. It’s seriously time we either sh*t or get off the pot.”

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She replied that she couldn’t meet because she was “trying to quit smoking, get in shape, and look for a job.” I feel that I’ve made my intentions clear, and thus my question: Am I a total jerk? Was I right to break ties? Or should I wait and hope that one day this will turn into something more? —Can’t Understand the Female Sex

My Dear Chap: The young lady is not interested. The young lady is not looking her best. The young lady is dating another guy. The young lady is dating two other guys. The young lady is a guy.

P.S. You’re too fine a fellow to waste your affections—70 texts a day, by my calculations!—on an imaginary girlfriend. I strongly recommend you sample the excellent dating site HowAboutWe.com. You sign up and suggest a clever date you’d like to go on, as in, “How about we drink Chartreuse and guess the 130 secret ingredients?” Young ladies with the same interests accept (or suggest another cool idea). Then you simply set a time, and meet!

This letter is from the E. Jean archive.

I Have a Decent Chance of Getting Breast Cancer, But I’m Keeping My Breasts

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By the time I find out the future written in my body, my mother has already lost her hair in chemo, so she sits next to me in a wig in the waiting room. The walk from the waiting room to the office seems long. The genetic counselor is asking about the snowfall in New England, where Justin, my husband, and I visited his family over Christmas. I don’t want to talk about the snowfall, though; I want to scream. My mother and I are walking into the caverns of the Cancer Center, where she gets weekly treatment for breast cancer.

Before I left for Christmas, I got three vials of blood drawn to send to a lab that would test it for the same BRCA1 mutation my mother has. The mutation causes up to a 90 percent chance of developing breast cancer and up to a 40 percent chance of ovarian cancer. Today, we are walking to the same room where we learned my mother’s results, with Hannah, the same counselor. She had made a family tree for us both, branches and circles looking more like a biology midterm than the manzanitas and oaks I grew up climbing.

Hannah, mercifully, tells me as soon as we’re sitting down that my fears are confirmed. “We found the same mutation that we found in your mother,” she says, pushing a stack of papers toward me to confirm, although it’s my body we’re talking about, which feels fine.

She is business-like and sympathetic, and for a brief moment I think how awful it would be to give people bad news for a living when you can do so little to help them. “I know it’s not what we were hoping for,” Hannah says impotently. My mom holds my hand; she is the only person who knows exactly how I feel, and she is sorry for this thing she could not help. Later, she even apologizes, but an apology implies intent, and I know she would get breast cancer every year to keep her child from having to go through it. She is that sort of mother, the sort who loves me beyond my own understanding.

“If you’re interested in having children but don’t want to pass on the mutation, you have a number of options,” Hannah tells me immediately. “You can do IVF and only implant the embryo that didn’t inherit the mutation, or test a fetus you conceive naturally with the intention of terminating it if it has inherited your gene.” The chances are 50 percent, a flip of the coin.

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“Can we just take our chances?” I ask. After all, medicine moves at the speed of light. I seem to have too much control over some choices and not enough over others.

Hannah explains that a sentence written in our bodies is misspelled. The sentence should read “The big black dog sees the ball.” Instead, my mother’s and mine say “Pig big ball black sees.” All of our bodies have our futures written. My mother and I just got to read ours sooner. But because I can elect to get prophylactic surgeries now, while I’m still healthy, I have a chance to rewrite the ending of my story. It’s not an easy choice even if I’m happily childless, because it requires making a decision in this moment that will impact the rest of my life.

When I go to the bathroom a few minutes later to text Justin my results, I see a sign that says, “Sometimes all you can do is laugh.” I told Justin not to take the morning off work to come with me, because I was confident I would be fine. After all, I felt fine. I have no symptoms of illness. He replies that he’s so sorry, we’ll figure this out, call him when I leave. We both know the only way to cut the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer is simply to remove any organs or tissues — ovaries, fallopian tubes, and breast tissue — by age 35. I am 31. The small window I have to conceive, carry, and deliver a baby feels like it’s closing on us as we stick our heads out for air.

* * *

As a BRCA1 carrier, I need breast exams every three months. This is done through mammograms, MRIs, and ultrasounds, some of which I’m expected to pay for out of pocket. For now, I decide I will take my chances and continue getting my breast tissue checked rather than removed. It’s much easier to screen than ovaries.

When I first see the breast surgeon, she walks in the room, sits down, and asks, “Kids or no kids?”

“We want children,” I tell her, “but not right now.”

“Well, sooner rather than later,” she tells me. She has the same advice as the ob-gyn, as my primary-care doctor, as the Internet, and as my mother’s oncologist. “Every year you wait, your chances go up.”

My choice is between waiting until I’m ready for children, and increasing my risk for cancer each year I wait.

When I remove my shirt for her to take a picture of my breasts with the hospital iPad, she tells me, “You get really splotchy when you’re nervous.” I look down and see my neck and chest are bright red.

“You’d be a great candidate for a full mastectomy now,” she tells me as she snaps her picture. “You’re petite, so I’d make the incisions here and put in implants.” She points to the bottom of my breast.

“But what about breastfeeding?” I ask.

“It’s up to you,” she shrugs, “but it would be much more convenient. No more screening.” More convenient for whom, I want to ask.

“Come back in September for a mammogram and full-breast ultrasound,” she instructs. “Unless you’re pregnant by September, in which case we’ll cancel the mammogram.”

“Should I be?” I ask her, the alarm in my voice rising.

“Sooner is better than later,” she says.

* * *

My primary-care doctor explains that taking birth-control pills for fifteen years greatly reduces my risk of developing ovarian cancer. So for now, I take the oral birth control to prevent the children the doctors urge me to hurry up and have. I’m lucky to have health insurance through my job. Because paying for women’s birth control was one of the most hotly debated additions to the Affordable Care Act, it is one of the most vulnerable provisions now that Congress is working to dismantle the ACA. I take it to save my life, like people take a pill for cholesterol or heart disease. For me, it’s not a luxury. Women’s reproductive rights are not one-size-fits-all. We have lots of bodies and circumstances and should have lots of options. Justin and I take to the streets of LA for the Women’s March for women who don’t have the options I do.

My choice is between waiting until I’m ready for children, and increasing my risk for cancer each year I wait. I dream of traveling with Justin to Paris and Morocco, publishing my book, taking our time. We wish we could have children on our own terms, without feeling pressured by doctors or politicians.

In many ways, it feels like my mother’s body made a decision for me before I was born, just as I am taking my chances on passing on a genetic mutation for cancer to my own future children. Sometimes it feels like I have a ticking time bomb inside me, and by waiting until I am ready to have a baby, I am endangering myself just to prove a point about my bodily autonomy.

The decisions I will make over the coming years wake me up in the morning, sneak up behind me during the day, overtake so many of the quiet conversations I have with Justin in the evenings. Everyone has advice for me, projections of the choices they’ve made over the years: the babies they have had or not had, the careers they’ve secured or given up on, the books they’ve written or regretted leaving unfinished. It surprises me that I knew what I wanted to do — wait and see, rather than remove my breasts — as soon as I first learned of this diagnosis, and how strong my resolve has remained. For now, I’m not getting any surgery, but I give myself full permission to change my mind at any point.

In some ways, we all know the end of our stories, although we don’t know how they unfold. The agency I have in my decision uses those misspelled sentences to make something deliberate, carefully crafted, and beautiful. The shape of the story written within me can be rewritten by me.

Ellen O’Connell Whittet lives in California, where she is writing a memoir about ballet and the forces that control female bodies.

Why I’m Saying Goodbye to Toxic Friendships

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I moved to Los Angeles when I was almost 30, chasing love. The love, fortunately, worked out; but for a long time Los Angeles didn’t. I was lonely, bound in by concrete and car exhaust, unable to wrap my head around the city’s optimistic sprawl, unsure where and how I would ever find any friends. They certainly didn’t seem likely to emerge from the population that I surveyed every day at my neighborhood Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf: girls in Juicy Couture velour, headshots peering out of handbags, as nervous as wild colts as they assessed the competition over their nonfat Ice Blendeds.

So when an old friend hooked me up with a woman I’ll call Jessica, a whip-smart, idiosyncratic artist who had also recently moved to town, I was elated. The two of us — along with another recent-transplant friend, let’s call her Claire — soon became inseparable. My first years in LA were defined by our friendship: art openings, dim sum, hikes in Griffith Park, spontaneous dance parties in our backyard, long conversations over chilled rosé. I watched her career explode; she supported me through the publication of my first novel and the birth of my first child.

And then, after six intense years of friendship, Jessica ghosted. First she stopped returning Claire’s calls and emails — “She wasn’t elevating me,” Jessica told me when I tried to play intermediary — and then, not long after, it was my turn. She just … vanished: My phone went silent; texts disappeared into the ether; an invitation to a dinner party got a strange, terse response: “Can’t make it, have a blast.” And then that was it. As if our entire history together had been erased, overnight.

It’s shocking when a friendship dies that way: It feels impossible that you can experience total platonic love and devotion for another woman — BFFL all but tattooed on your heart — and then, abruptly, realize that you didn’t know that person at all. That your friendship was not what you thought it was; that it was just a way-stop for the other person on their path to bigger, better things. Those of us left behind in Jessica’s wake turned to each other, hurt and confused: Was it something we had done? Were we the failures here? Aren’t your closest friends supposed to be the one thing in life you can rely on?

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This particular self-doubt was, unfortunately, familiar to me: This wasn’t the first time a close friend had dumped me. While I have had lovely, lifelong friendships with women, my history has also been peppered by a series of intense friendships that felt more like romantic relationships, both in their duration (years) and in their termination (abrupt, confusing, and ultimately devastating). In my experience, friendship is often something that burns hot and strong before dying without warning, like a lover jilting you at the altar.

Women don’t talk as much about those kinds of toxic, temporary friendships. Instead, we like to romanticize the forever-friendship, idealize enduring sisterhood as the norm — Thelma and Louise driving off the cliff together, to hell with men, just them against the world.

We idealize this notion because that’s what we want to believe.

But the truth is that many friendships have something festering under the surface — some resentment, some inequality, or just the inevitable annoyance that comes with spending insane amounts of time with another human being. Healthy friendships overlook these flaws or address them straight-on, but both parties have to be onboard.

Looking back at my years with Jessica, I can see how unhealthy our relationship was, how I overlooked the unsettling signs of imbalance in the name of friendship. I see now that I wasn’t allowed to challenge her; she was a classic narcissist who needed me to be in thrall. And there were things in her history that should have rung alarm bells early on: the string of old friends she didn’t talk to anymore, all of whom had been guilty of mysterious personal betrayals; a certain knack for reinvention that she had clearly mastered along the way. The way she seemed so keenly interested in people with power and money, of which I had neither, and also so condemning of our friends’ weaknesses.

So while I was in it, for keeps, she had probably always had her eye out for the next big thing.

It feels impossible that you can experience total platonic love and devotion for another woman and then, abruptly, realize that you didn’t know that person at all.

Maybe I should have seen it coming. After all, Jessica wasn’t the first best friend who had ghosted me — in my late 20s, I’d had a nearly identical experience. “Danielle” was in my small circle of girlfriends in San Francisco. We were glued at the hip for several years: we traveled together to Mexico and rented a ski house together every winter; I watched her cat when she was out of town. When I went through a drawn-out, painful breakup with my long-term boyfriend, her shoulder was the one I cried on. Which is why it was so confusing when, out of the blue, she one day announced that she no longer wanted to be my friend. “I find you annoying,” she told me, an explanation that sent me spinning downward into a pit of self-recrimination. She’d found the most tender place within me, located my worst fear, and pressed it.

Within weeks, however, Danielle’s real motivation for dumping me became clear: she had started dating my ex-boyfriend. She wanted him, ultimately, more than she wanted my friendship, which I could (barely) understand. And yet the wound that she opened all those years ago remains there even today, a whisper that always sits at the back of my mind: You are annoying. No one likes you. Not even your closest friends. When Jessica dumped me a decade later, I secretly believed that it once again all boiled down to my unlikability — even as it grew clear that this was Jessica’s behavior pattern and not specifically about me.

Ironically, I spent so many years obsessing over what had happened, rehashing Jessica’s behavior, analyzing her personality, that I eventually realized I had a fully formed character for my next book — the intoxicating narcissist who became the center of my new novel, Watch Me Disappear. After all, I’d become something of an expert on compelling women who disappear and the damage they leave behind.


And yet, despite all this retrospective clarity, the pain of these lost friends still lingers. That is the greatest danger of this kind of intense, toxic friendship: the damage they inflict feels so damn personal. Losing a friend feels like a failure, a more inexplicable failure in many ways than losing a lover. Women aren’t supposed to “fall out of love” with each other so abruptly. They aren’t supposed to dump each other so cruelly and inexplicably. So when they do, it’s hard not to wonder whether it is somehow all your fault.

All these years on, though, I can’t say I regret either of these friendships, no matter how painful and confusing the breakups were. I approach friendship now with a grain of understanding that this may all be temporary and that a forever friendship can’t be assumed, no matter how close I may feel to my girlfriends. I am warier now, which is sad, but I’m also more prepared for loss if it comes.

I do still have close relationships with girlfriends, though, including some that have lasted decades and promise to last many more. These women are the anchors that keep me sane while juggling motherhood and marriage and career and the general anxiety of life. But the boundaries between their lives and mine feel clearer now than they once did: Maybe it’s a function of growing older and having a more full life, but I don’t feel the need to get lost in a friendship anymore. It’s been hard enough to find myself.

Janelle Brown is the best-selling author of All We Ever Wanted Was Everything and Watch Me Disappear (out July 11).

I’m Fed Up With My Controlling Mother-in-Law I Live With

Dear E. Jean:I’m a 25-year-old newlywed with a mother-in-law who goes through my stuff, tries to control what my husband and I do, and cries crocodile tears if things don’t go her way. She wrangles to get in between us and cause fights. When we’re dining with friends, she calls us and fakes being sick. She treats my husband and me like slaves—making us do chores for her and drive her around.

I’ve had enough! True, my husband and I are living with her (and my father-in-law) while we finish our last year in law school, but even my husband is fed up. However, we’re afraid to move because we’ll feel bad. They’re both nearing their late fifties and will soon be needing a lot of our help. I feel like we’re abandoning them! —Helpless Daughter-in-Law

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Helpless, My Heliotrope: Somehow I can’t get excited about in-laws who are a decade and a half younger than myself reaching such a state of decrepitude that they “will soon” be needing help. Phoo! Let the buggers fend for themselves. Take them out to dinner and tell them that you’ll be moving. When they start weeping and fainting, explain that they are so young and fit, now that you think of it, they are probably much more competent to drive you around. Tell them that it’s absurd to impose upon them any longer, that you must concentrate on your studies and the upcoming bar exam, and that you look forward to seeing them once every two weeks.

PS: And be so good as to ask your mother-in-law never to appear within my sight.

I’m Really Not Comfortable With What My New Boyfriend Wants Me to Do in Bed

Dear E. Jean: I’ve started dating a wonderful man. He has a great job, a wicked sense of humor, and a cute smile, and he treats me with respect and dignity. We met through a mutual friend and have been going strong for a month. We haven’t been intimate yet, but while we were cuddling in his bed the other night, we started discussing our sexual histories. All of a sudden, he pulls up a chain with handcuffs on my side of the bed and says: “I have to tell you—I love being tied up.”

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If we didn’t have the lights off, he would have been able to see the shock on my face. Handcuffs—they were just so…there. I’m not a prude. But I’m not in a place right now to escape my sexual comfort zone. Do I continue the relationship if this makes me feel so uncomfortable? —Not Ready for 50 Shades

Not Ready, My Rhododendron: Though the eminent members of the Advice Columnist Whips & Chains Committee will conceive the vilest opinion of me—I mean, have you ever read an advice column that didn’t urge a correspondent to “experiment”?—I say to hell with it. If you don’t want to handcuff the chap, don’t do it. He seems to be a good man, patient and respectful. So tell him if he promises not to pester you, you may come around in time and go so far as to allow him to escort you to a screening of the Leonardo DiCaprio handcuff scene in Titanic.

I’m Engaged to an Undocumented Immigrant

I watched the election on TV, alone in a hotel room at the end of a trip in a red state. I texted with my parents, a few friends, and watched dumbfounded as my world changed. I cried until I landed home in New York City the next morning, as gray and sad as me.

Everything was different. There was a sullen panic buzzing through the streets of my East Village community, a diverse and tolerant part of the city. Ron* (my fiancé) and I hadn’t spoken the night before, there was nothing to say over the phone, and when I got home we hugged silently, fighting back tears.

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I quickly realized that the next few months were the last of a social climate I had since taken for granted, and vowed to enjoy them. Thanksgiving and the holidays masked the worry and sense of dread. I tried not to think about the fact that it could be my last Thanksgiving in the United States, at least for a while. Friends assured me that it wasn’t going to be like that. We focused on holiday cookies and seasonal punch bowls. The idea that his campaign promises were empty rhetoric still existed.

Inauguration came in the deep of winter, and the spectacle of 2017 was a jolting blow. Uncertainty started to penetrate deeper into every moment of my life—our lives—as the reality of the situation grew uglier than anticipated.

For the decade Ron has been here he has contributed invaluably to award-winning restaurants, like so many other immigrants. He pays taxes, has never been arrested, and sends most of his money home to his family in Puebla. We want to start our own family soon, and hope to get his status changed to legal permanent resident. The process is long and expensive even in the best of cases, and starts with a FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act), where a lawyer sends an inquiry to the FBI and US Customs & Border control to get an official status report. We sent his in in October 2016.

As reports of ICE showing up to houses of otherwise peaceful, hardworking people started to roll in, we grew tense. Was sending in the FOIA a mistake? Will they send back information of whether or not he has a deportation, or just show up and bang on our door? So far that has not happened in Manhattan, but it’s happening in Brooklyn. We sat down with our roommate to tell him what to do if ICE shows up, and explained that he should not open the door unless they provide a signed document with a checklist of specifications.

“The casual hypocrisy of indulging in Latin American culture but not defending its presence, especially in a city like New York, has become a glaring character flaw where it was once a subtle omission.”

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I am lucky enough to be surrounded by like-minded people who support freedom for all, but even in a sea of friends, I find myself alone and terrified. I would be lying if I said my situation hasn’t caused distance between me and my friends. I get annoyed now at tweets about a new taco spot a friend is dying to try, because that same friend never has time to tag along to a rally for immigrant rights. The casual hypocrisy of indulging in Latin American culture but not defending its presence, especially in a city like New York, has become a glaring character flaw where it was once a subtle omission.

I see so many people who are just too tired to care now that the initial shock has worn off, and since they are not directly affected (yet), it’s business as usual. My less political friends who tend toward complacency have become acquaintances, whereas my more outspoken friends have become part of my inner circle.

Even so, I feel isolated. When I hear news that ICE has started to target people in New York City boroughs, I hyperventilate and lose sleep to recurring nightmares of federal police tearing Ron away from me on the street. While my activist friends react strongly to the same news, they don’t feel it the same way I do. They are distraught for their country, imagining a sad future for America; I am panicked over the safety of my fiancé, imagining him being beaten and detained in the elusive detention centers that deportees go to.

“While we find comfort and strength in each other during difficult situations, we cannot find total comfort in each other over this.”

If you are lucky enough to have found the love of your life, you know how deeply wonderful and terrifying it is. While we find comfort and strength in each other during difficult situations, we cannot find total comfort in each other over this. We are not in the same situation, I am a citizen, he is not. He is isolated in a different way, concerned on levels I cannot even begin to understand. Even as partners, we experience the reality separately. While he has been estranged from his country and family for a decade, I am just beginning to contemplate being the stranger in a foreign land.

On one hand I am an American citizen with a high level of education, living the dream in New York City. On the other hand I am the partner of an undocumented immigrant who could be deported at a moment’s notice. I feel torn between two worlds, unsure of my identity and place in society. Faced with the decision to choose between my country and my partner, I imagine what life would be like in Mexico.

We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ve discussed our emergency plans for all of the different scenarios, and I keep the number to track someone in detention centers in my phone contacts, just in case. There are certain parts of the city that are off limits now. I’ve had to say goodbye to small things, like the taco place we love in Sunset Park, and big things, like traveling outside of the city.

There is a chance that within two years Ron will have a green card and we will be free to travel in and out of the country together, something that has only been a dream so far. There’s also the chance that he will be deported. Right now all we can do is be vigilant, stay informed, and behave intelligently.

The stress of the situation strains us sometimes, but mostly it draws us closer together. We are a team, all in, whether we stay and move to a burgeoning town upstate, or are forced to leave our home and community behind and start anew in Mexico, Canada, or somewhere else. What we do know is that we will make the best of what we have, and face the many possible futures as prepared as possible with grace and courage. Whatever happens, I have no regrets.

*Name has been changed

No, I’m Not Less of a Mom for Having One Child

The other day I saw a woman wearing a shirt that read, “Oops! I forgot to have children!” across the front and I kind of wanted to run up and give her a hug while whispering, “You, madam, are my spirit animal.” Except that would be weird on a lot of levels, so I buried that impulse.

The truth is that I didn’t forget to have children. I just had child. One child. And lean in closer while I make this confession: My husband and I made that decision on purpose.

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It’s not really what I’d planned for myself when I was younger and daydreamed about my future family. In fact, I went through a phase in the mid-80s when I imagined myself with five children that I would name Mandy, Randy, Candy, Sandy and Andy. And now you’re thinking it probably all worked out for the best that I ended up having only one.

I certainly never envisioned myself being any kind of spokesperson for the only-child crowd, but over the last 11 years as I’ve written on my blog, the question I get the most is from other women who want to know if it’s okay if they decide to stop after one child or asking if I have regrets that we never gave my daughter, Caroline, a sibling.

And that’s a hard question, because the number of kids you and your husband decide to have is an extremely personal decision, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that by all the complete strangers who feel free to regularly ask, “So, when are you going to have another one?” or “Don’t you worry about what will happen to her when you die and she’s left all alone in the world?” People are so great. And by that I mean that they can be extremely insensitive and feel like they have the right to get in your business even if you just met them on an airplane or in line at Starbucks.

Melanie with her husband, Perry, and their daughter, Caroline.

Honestly, we didn’t officially arrive at the decision to have an only child until Caroline started kindergarten and, even then, I sometimes second-guessed our decision almost every time someone questioned why we didn’t have more — because what happens if we screw her up and end up being two old people who have to spend holidays with just the dog? I’d Google articles about only children, reassuring myself that they often ended up being higher achievers, leaders and, most importantly, not automatically in therapy over not having a sibling. But then I’d see a picture of Caroline as a squishy toddler and think back nostalgically on those days and wonder if I wanted to do it all over again. Would I regret not doing it again? Would she be okay without a brother or a sister?

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But I began to realize that while some of those concerns were legitimate, the majority of them were based on my perception of what a family was supposed to look like. It’s the American ideal right? Two cars in the garage, at least two kids (preferably a boy and a girl), and a chicken in every pot. I think maybe that was some politician’s campaign slogan in the 1950s. However, when I blocked out the external noise and the well-meaning questions and my own insecurities about people making me feel like I was less of a mom for just having one child and focused on how I felt and what was really best for our family, I found that I felt completely secure in our decision to have one child.

When I blocked out the noise, I found I felt completely secure in our decision.

I believe that instead of it being a selfish decision, it was accepting what we were emotionally and physically prepared for. It really dawned on me one day when Caroline and I visited one of her kindergarten classmates who happened to be the youngest of four kids. As that mom and I sat and attempted to visit, there was a constant stream of yelling, jumping, crashing noises and shrieks as what seemed to be a pack of children ran in and out of the house. This mom wasn’t fazed by it in the least, she kept up her end of the conversation and never skipped a beat. It was like she was having high tea at a fancy resort and I was a frightened dog at a fireworks show. I began to realize that when I saw my fellow moms chasing toddlers all around the neighborhood pool that I had lost my nostalgia for those days and felt nothing but the relief of a prisoner on parole to be able to just sit and watch my independent big kid jump off the diving board.

As we ventured into the world of sports, it was nice that my husband and I were able to attend all of Caroline’s soccer games together instead of resorting to the divide and conquer strategy that families of multiples have to do when schedules inevitably overlap. And we’ve each had plenty of time to cultivate our own unique relationship with Caroline because she has all of our focus. It also helps that Caroline is completely content with her only child status. However, we have worked hard to make sure that she doesn’t live up to the stereotype of the “spoiled only child.” Yes, she probably gets a few more gifts at Christmas because she’s the only one we have to buy gifts for, but we have raised her with character, integrity and a heart that focuses on those around her. There are plenty of kids with lots of siblings who can turn out entitled and selfish because the character of a child is ultimately determined by what is instilled in them by their parents, not how many brothers or sisters they happen to have. We have worked hard to make sure Caroline treats the world around her with kindness and respect and in some ways I think being an only child has helped her focus on her friendships even more because her friends are the closest thing to family that she has outside of us.

These days I’m completely at peace with having an only child, unless I’ve watched an episode of Parenthood on Netflix. How fulfilled can you be in life if you aren’t a Braverman who regularly dines outdoors under twinkly lights with your grown siblings? But as I watch the woman Caroline is becoming, I believe all the more that our decision was the right one for our family. We are a little band of three and that has been the perfect fit for all of us.

And, best of all, I will never have the need to own a minivan.

Melanie Shankle is an author and blogger behind Big Mama. Her latest book, Church of the Small Things, will be published this fall.

I’m a Carrier for Muscular Dystrophy, and I Might Give it to My Unborn Son

I flew home to Pennsylvania in December to tell my dad I was pregnant with my first child. By then it had been more than a year since my father had been able to get out of the hospital bed that had taken up permanent residence in my parents’ living room. He could no longer stand, lift his arms to feed himself, or use the bathroom on his own.

“We’re having a baby.” I stood next to his bed and puffed my barely-three-months-pregnant belly toward him. He couldn’t speak, but his entire face smiled. His hand trembled as he moved it toward my stomach to touch it.

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“He kicked,” I lied and made myself smile when he made contact. It was too soon for the baby to move. But I wanted to make him happy.

Two days later my dad went to sleep. He didn’t wake up. He was 62.

The genetic mutation that caused Dad’s muscular dystrophy, the disease that caused other diseases that ultimately killed him, lives on an obscure region of his fourth chromosome called q35. Growing up, our family doctors told me I couldn’t inherit it. They were wrong.

I was married for six months when my husband Nick and I started talking to my doctor about having our own baby. The conversation covered all the standard genetics questions and the not-standard ones. Yes, my dad has this disease. No, I’m not a carrier. Are you sure? Actually, I wasn’t. I couldn’t remember the exact conversation with my family doctor. I couldn’t remember if I’d long ago created the narrative in my mind that I wanted to believe.

They took a lot of blood. Six weeks later, I heard back from a chirpy genetics counselor named Violet.

“Hi, Jo! I was surprised by your results,” she informed me in the same tone someone will tell you the winner of The Bachelor. “You do have the genetic mutation.”

I’d read once that some people swoon, actually pass out, when they hear bad news. My joints turned to butter, and I sat down on the floor to listen numbly to her directions about what to do next.

Two voices fought for supremacy in my head.

The first: You should just give up. Stop working. Fuck it! Let your roots grow out, dye your hair green, and sit with the gutter punks down on Haight-Ashbury smoking crack … because why not?

And the second: It doesn’t matter what the tests say. You’ll fight. You’re strong. You’re stronger than you know.

The first voice was so clearly mine. The second was Nick’s.

I couldn’t imagine wanting a baby, living with it in my body for three months, and then ending its brief life because of something that might happen to it in 40 or 50 years.

“You should divorce me,” I said to my husband that night, my brand-new husband who loved skiing and hiking and climbing and riding things. “Maybe the good of being married to me doesn’t outweigh the bad anymore,” I said to him the night after I talked to Violet. “You should find a hot and healthy new wife.” I paused. “Maybe not hot, but someone sturdy!”

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He looked at me like I was nuts and scratched his head. “You know, I measured it. I had these tools to measure the good and the bad of being married to you, and I set up the machine and I did all of these calculations, and you know what happened? The damn machine broke, the good outweighed the bad so freakin’ much.”

I married a good man.

We met with a neurologist to determine whether the muscular dystrophy had already started degrading my muscles. He couldn’t find anything tangible. Yet.

“Because this kind of muscular dystrophy affects the facial muscles, people often have a hard time smiling, and so people often think they’re unhappy,” the doctor said. “Do people often think you are unhappy?”

“So you’re saying a symptom of this kind of muscular dystrophy is resting bitch face?” I made a joke because it was true. Weren’t old men on the street always telling me to smile more? I’d spent most of my adult life being told to “wipe that puss off my face.” I cut to the chase. “What about our kids?”

“They have a fifty-fifty chance. You can’t screen for it in an embryo, so IVF won’t help. You can test a fetus, but not until about twelve weeks, and then you have the option of terminating the pregnancy.” The words terminating the pregnancy hung in the air like a storm cloud ready to burst any second. I opened my mouth but couldn’t say anything. I pinched my thigh above the knee, hard. My nails curled into my skin. I needed to feel something. “We should go,” I finally whispered to Nick. “I just want to go home. Please.”

My Wife and Unborn Daughter Died Two Months Ago. This Mother’s Day, I’m Celebrating Differently

I first met Meg years ago—a chance encounter at Yankee Stadium—but we lost each other in the rush to get on the subway. I checked every single subway car, but she wasn’t there. An hour later, as luck would have it, we bumped into each other again in midtown. This time I made sure to get her number. We were married 3 years later.

We had a baby. We moved to the suburbs. Meg was pregnant with our second daughter and when we saw her on the ultrasound this past February, she looked at us and blinked, clear as day. It was wild. Meg was due on May 18, the week after Mother’s Day, and we couldn’t wait for our little family of three—Meg, me and our Thomas the Train loving toddler Isabelle —to grow.

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But everything changed unexpectedly the morning of March 3, 2017, when Meg was six and a half months pregnant. Meg left before I did—I was in the shower—so she said goodbye and we said “I love you.” And when I headed to work a little later, I noticed the street was closed near our house, just by the bus stop where Meg and her brother Derek catch the bus to New York City. A little while later, Meg’s mom called me and told me Derek had been in an accident and they couldn’t get in touch with Meg. Soon my father called and told me to come home, and immediately, right then, I knew exactly what happened.

The first time I said my daughter Addy’s name out loud was when the coroner called. Meg and I had traded a bunch of emails and texts about names, and Adaline was the one we would have picked, even if we both hadn’t admitted that yet. It felt so weird to make a decision like this without her. I still look at the emails and texts she’s sent me, or listen to her voice on a voicemail. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s comforting. But I’m glad I have them.

I still look at the emails and texts she’s sent me, or listen to her voice on a voicemail. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s comforting. But I’m glad I have them.

Meg was special. She was beautiful and smart, an amazing softball player and the kind of person who loved impromptu dance parties in the kitchen. She went to church on Sundays, even if we had been out on Saturday night. She loved her parents. She was patient and kind, the kind of person you thanked God for every single day. I still do. I was lucky to have 10 years with Meg, and I know that. And sometimes when I look at Izzy, I see Meg. Like her mother, Izzy has possibly the worst poker face on the planet. If she’s excited, it’s all right there; she’s bursting. And if she’s mad, well, good luck. There’s no hiding that either. It would always make me laugh with Meg, because she could never pretend to like a gift, or a meal at a restaurant. The words might say one thing—she was always so gracious and lovely—but her face said another.

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Telling Izzy that Meg had passed was one of the hardest parts of all of this. She was so little, just a month before her 2nd birthday. And it’s hard for me to accept that she will grow up without a mother. I mean, maybe I’ll have some perspective over time, but the world is not a better place without her. I talked to a lot of experts to make sure I said the right things to Izzy—I used the word “died,” not “sleeping,” because I didn’t want her to think Meg would wake up. I didn’t tell her she was with Jesus, because she associates going to church on Sundays with visiting Jesus. Truth is, I didn’t want to give her more than she needs, but I also wanted to make sure she understood that Meg wasn’t coming back, even though some days I have trouble understanding that.

The hardest parts are the little things, like going to bed at night. Multiple times a day I think: “I can’t wait to tell Meg this story.” It might be something that happened at work or a teacher says something about Isabelle at daycare and I just want to share it with Meg. That’s the most difficult stuff, where for a split moment you forget she’s not there anymore. In those moments I kind of just shake my head and try to smile and look up.

But I can’t always muster a smile, there are many times where I am enraged and frustrated, always keeping those emotions from Izzy, knowing that it could have been different for us. Izzy and I talk about Meg all the time—if we’re talking about favorite colors, we’ll do daddy’s, Izzy’s and mommy’s—and there are pictures everywhere in our house. I used to buy Meg flowers every week and I still do. When I bring them home, Izzy says they are for mommy and we put them in the familiar places. When Izzy brings Meg up, just recently she said, “Mommy, mommy, I miss mommy,” I tell her it’s OK to miss her and I miss her too. I have to remind her we won’t see her again, but I also reassure her that I am not going anywhere.

The hardest parts are the little things, like going to bed at night. Multiple times a day I think: “I can’t wait to tell Meg this story.”

I needed to be direct and honest with her, which was difficult, but I needed her to hear it from me. She is surrounded by love—me, my parents, Meg’s parents, Meg’s brother Derek, and my siblings—and that means everything. (Our neighbors, co-workers, friends, and strangers have all been so incredibly supportive, and while I haven’t had the chance to thank them all, it’s really so appreciated.) Now when Izzy cries—she’s a 2-year-old, it’s part of the toddler experience—she says daddy, but every now and again she says “mommy,” although she catches herself. I know she misses her.

I know Meg isn’t coming back, but I still feel like we’re raising Isabelle together. For Mother’s Day, while most of the kids made cards for their moms, Izzy made them for her grandmothers. They both went to her mommy and me event at school, too. I know that she will look for female role models —I can see it already. And while no one will replace Meg, we’re so lucky to have my mother-in-law, my mom, my sister, my brother’s girlfriend and my brother’s wife around. If I have to make a decision, I often think, ‘what would Meg do?’. That doesn’t mean I do exactly what she would have done, but I play it out—what I would have said, what she would have said, and where we would have ended up. I still tag Meg in everything on Facebook, too. She has friends that I’m not friends with and I want them to see Izzy and still be a part of our life.

This Mother’s Day, and every other day, I want Izzy to know how loved she is by me, how much Meg loved her and how important she was to Meg. I want her to know the compassionate, loving, and brilliant woman her mother was, the foods she loved and the songs she liked. I want her to know that she has a mother, someone who loved the title of ‘Izzy’s mommy’ above all else.I don’t ever feel alone and I don’t want Izzy too either. Meg and I are raising our child together and the three of us are still a family.